A Pale Face in the Moonlight: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
I first really became aware of director Isao Takahata’s work with GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES on DVD. I don’t remember it being in the theatres; it was in that odd period of the late-80s/early-90s when AKIRA had its breakthrough, and its strident brethren ruled what little Japanese animation there was then, and before Takahata’s Studio Ghibli stablemate Hayao Miyazaki took off to the heights in the United States. A week here, a festival there, and it would be gone. I remember the muted somber box for GRAVE at the late DVD Planet and picking it up. It is a dark, heartfelt, almost monstrous film – one of the most affecting films about the aftermath of World War II and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan you will ever see. The muted character designs and realistic backgrounds combined with the slowly building magical realism creates this cocoon that envelopes the viewer, wrapping you tighter and tighter, engulfing you until there is no escape. No escape at all.
I never associated Takahata with MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS when I first saw it, certainly not the Takahata of GRAVE. My daughter has seen the trailer for YAMADAS on a Miyazaki and wanted to see it. Begged to see it. She loved the trailer. We took her to see SPIRITED AWAY when she was 2. And she became a devoted Studio Ghibli fan. In her younger days, she didn’t distinguish Miyazaki from Takahata – THE CAT RETURNS, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, YAMADAS – all the same. And thematically and artistically, YAMADAS is about as far from GRAVES as one can get. The story of the Yamada family unfolds in vignettes, slices of life, some connected, some not – the free flowing of a family connecting them. The art takes a queue from the storytelling with the characters captured in thick brush strokes, softly moving. It is cartoonish in the best sense – creating a hyper realized world that evokes the heightened emotions of the family. YAMADAS is punctuated with an almost sitcom sense of humor – the grouchy grandmother, the trips to the grocery store, children lost in the mall – but Takahata brings a real depth to the proceedings. The lightly sketched Yamada family comes poignantly alive, and lovely, together.
THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA has been labeled as Takahata’s magnum opus. Much like his contemporary Miyazaki, he announced his retirement with KAGUYA. KAGUYA would be an interesting endpoint, if that indeed holds true, and at 79 years may well be indeed. It highlights different aspects from his films, creating something new, something that is Takahata, and yet very much its own creature as well. A re-telling of the traditional Japanese folktale THE TALE OF THE BAMBOO CUTTER/TAKETORI MONOGATARI – it follows the life of “Little Bamboo”, a child born of a bamboo shoot who rapidly grows to teenage under the tutelage of the bamboo cutter and his wife, gaining the eye of the nobility of the land, and ultimately the emperor of Japan, before disappearing as mysteriously as she arrived. To tell more would really be to betray the delicate beauty of what transpires under Takahata’s hand.
Artistically, the look is very similar to YAMADAS; the Bamboo Cutter and Mr Yamada could be brothers – ancestors of the same family. Personality wise. Not always right. Not always the smartest. But filled with love. What was cartoonish in YAMADAS here instead evokes the whisper of a brush stroke. Where Miyazaki often invokes Hiroshige and the wood blocks in his palette, Takahata evokes more the work of Sharaku with the sharp faces completed in deft brush strokes. Moreover, KAGUYA is akin to a scroll come to life. The fluid movements of the newly named Kaguya in her flight from the party intensifies that. It’s like liquid art pouring out onto the screen. It’s amazing in both its simplicity, and its depth.
This adaptation of the traditional folk story may seem out of the more modern vision of Takahata, but is not unprecedented. His POM POKO, released between GRAVE and YAMADAS, takes the folklore that surrounds the tanuki, the Japanese raccoon dogs, and transplants them to modern times, spinning a fable of the late 20th Century. Much like GRAVE, and even though rife with ribald humor, POM POKO is ultimately an elegy to the lost. The loss of innocence. The loss of the wild. The loss of self. These creatures of legend find little place in the modern world – their transformations from human to animal to cartoonish in-between are a neat encapsulation of this Neither here nor there. As the children in GRAVES. As Kaguya. What is unique, what is beautiful, in the tanuki must be qualified, quantified … made small. And that’s really the driving force of KAGUYA as well, this attempt to make her small. The Bamboo Cutter does not see “Little Bamboo” only his own version of what happiness is. The suitors do not see as they want to possess an object, not a person. The individual beauty of her voice, her unseen face, is caricatured in the suitors’ fanciful comparisons to other folk legends. The initially breezy tone of KAGUYA, the joy of youth, is quickly circumscribed by rules, by the desires of others, and is ultimately denaturing. The plucking of eyebrows. The blackening of teeth. Only the start.
But like the tanuki, like the children, Kaguya perseveres. Against often insurmountable odds. She continues to strive for her freedom, for her desire. To be the force of nature she was born to be. She fights her shrinking world as best she can. Sometimes as a petulant child. Sometimes as a wise beyond her years adult. Always as Little Bamboo, always as Kaguya. Most telling here is the ending. Takahata does not let her escape unscathed. She has committed herself to a path. This becomes ever clearer. And that path has consequences. Consequences to her freedom, to her identity. Takahata could go with a simple, happy ending here. There is a moment when that could happen. A brief second, a glance, much as in life. But, this is not a cartoon world. This is not the YAMADAS. The ambiguity of place, of heart, that sombers the final scene is … simply perfect. It’s not, perhaps, what we want, what we desire, but it is, in a fairy tale world, the logical outcome.
In short, THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA is a satisfying, beautiful film. Invite it into your home. Invite all of Takahata’s films in.